Bereshit 5774 – Guardians of the World

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …Genesis 1:28

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to protect it. …Genesis 2:15

 

We have just completed our annual cycle of personal and collective reflection on our sins. If we’ve done teshuvah (repentance) properly, we start the new year feeling as if God has given us a fresh start. One problem: as a community we have too many issues where we have not yet done teshuvah and taken steps to fix damage that has been done.

Literally the day after we finished our cycle of reflection, repentance, forgiveness, and atonement comes a stark reminder of one area we are not doing nearly enough: a new report on climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a multinational organization of the world’s top climate scientists that issues a report every five or six years assessing climate change and its causes. Its latest report is sobering indeed: a better than 95% chance that humans are responsible for much if not all of the global warming seen in recent years. Unless something is done to slow down the rate at which we are pumping carbon gases into the atmosphere we are likely to see a 3 foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century – levels that would inundate many coastal cities, including New York. The problems may hit us sooner than previously expected, because the Greenland ice sheet is melting much faster than was predicted based on models.

The “climate change skeptics” claim that the IPCC is radical on climate change and exaggerates, but as reported in the NYTimes, it actually takes a conservative position among climate scientists. “The conservatism is built into its consensus structure, which tends to produce a lowest common denominator on which a large number of scientists can agree.”

We are in a car heading straight towards a cliff – the driver has been warned there’s a cliff ahead, but he steadfastly refuses to take his foot off the gas. We are setting future generations up for environmental damage and dislocation on a scale never seen before.

And this is all in violation of our God-mandated role as protectors of the world.

This week we begin again our annual cycle of reading the Torah. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

There are those who think the Bible is “anti-environmental” because Genesis 1:28 seems to give the world to us to do with as we please: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” But a careful reading of the verse’s original Hebrew indicates the word used for “rule” is similar to the “rule” of a king – and in the Jewish tradition, the king is supposed to rule for the benefit of his subjects, not for his own personal gain. Chapter 2 verse 15, however, makes it explicit: we are charged to protect the Garden of Eden that God has given us.

But we don’t need to go hunting for sources for environmentalism in the Torah to know that we need to do something about global warming. Even if we say the world is ours to do with as we see fit, causing an environmental catastrophe is not in our own enlightened self-interest. A 3-foot rise in sea levels will place a horrible economic burden on future generations. Imagine the cost of abandoning all of Manhattan. Now multiply that by hundreds of coastal cities around the world. My wife and I recently visited Venice (I served as rabbi on a cruise ship over the High Holidays, and our last stop was Venice). What an amazing, beautiful, place. A 3 foot rise in sea levels would put every street in the city completely under water. What’s cheaper – slowing down climate change now, or paying the price 50 years from now?

It would be helpful for the climate change debate to see a “cost / benefit analysis” of investing in slowing down global warming. Maybe it would be cheaper to abandon Manhattan and all the urban areas that would be inundated by a 3-foot rise in sea level than it is to do something about global warming. But somehow, I doubt that would be the case.

We’ve just come through the holiday season, a time when we do repentance and ask forgiveness for our sins. I can forgive earlier generations for their environmental sins that have led us to where we are today – they simply didn’t know better. But will my grandchildren’s generation be able to forgive my generation for the damage we are knowingly doing to their world?

 

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